'Girl' a Film about a Trans Girl and Ballet

I've held fire on an analysis of Girl until I had the opportunity to see it in full.  I had that opportunity  on the  afternoon of Monday 18th March,  when i went to see  it in Sheffield, I also invited Ruth along as another trans woman who is known to be partial to taking class...

before you go any further  this  post  will contain discussion of  the following topics which should have a content warning :-


Self Harm
damaging Body Image criticism
none consensual sexual activity

There is  content that may be considered  spoilers as well.  

Firstly -  The Director - Yes Lukas Dhont is a cis guy, but he has clearly stated and it's been  confirmed and expanded on by Nora Monsecour that Nora had significant input into the production, so while the initial  criticism before Nora's involvement  was public could have had legs, in the light of what  we now know and Nora's comments here, here and here it is quite clear that  the narrative is strongly influenced by Nora's story in terms of the dance and clinical aspects and that Nora had substantial input and control of the creative process.

Secondly - The casting, casting a cisgender male in Victor Polster to play a trans girl/young women was always going to attract criticism from some quarters, One can argue this is less of an issue as one of the trans parts of the story line is  the countdown to the addition of  Oestrogen to  Lara's medication regime this is not necessarily trans woman = man , but trans teen subject to the hand wringer pleasing delayed puberty the Dutch protocol creates with it's dogged insistence that he individual must be 16 before commencing  cross sex hormones.  (at least Lara's script popped out of her birthday card as such ... ) .

However Girl had the added complication of it's dance content meaning that whoever portrayed Lara  be they cisgender or transgender; assigned male at birth or assigned female at birth they would in addition to being able to act, being able to capture the spirit/ nature of the trans individual, they would need to be a vocational level dancer with decent Pointe technique (or the ability to  rapidly acquire  that Pointe technique as alluded to in the  the story itself).

"But surely  casting a trans girl to play Lara would be so much more authentic ... " perhaps so, but it also may as well brand a large T on the forehead of the actor doing it  (which was the reason  ITV gave for the casting of Maxine in Butterfly)  which  may seem counter productive  for someone who  hasn't had to go through the 'wrong' puberty  or  whose  'wrong' puberty was stopped soon after  Tanner II and  consequently  whose 'passability' in their adult life would be rather different to someone who completed a 'wrong puberty'.

Then  of course there is the ' the ballet body' and the influence of Balanchine and other mid to late C20th  male  choreographers and  artistic directors on what  society perceives as  'normal' for the female presenting  dancer  the lean, long limbed dancer with  boyish hips ...  while the ballet world  has begun to move on from the harmful Balanchine vision  back towards a more healthy  dancer , whether  that  be Misty Copeland or through the models of teaching espoused by people like Yoko Ichino and those who have danced  for her and David Nixon at the  various companies they have  held  ballet staff / Artistic / academy  director posts with...

Thirdly,  The dancing

My estimation is that 95 % of the dance content in Girl  is up close and personal, shot on handheld cameras , the camera operators  mixing it in with the dancers in the studio, which means  the arguments used about  Natalie Portman's role in Black Swan are rather less applicable as the substitution of  a 'dance double' would be very apparent in Girl. There is a lot of Pointe work  in Girl, unsuprisingly really given that Lara and her class mates are 15 rising 16 so in vocational training you are looking at  the majority of work being able to be done on pointe for the female dancers.

So finding the dancer who can act and who can in some way shape or form  deliver the  embodiment of Lara as Nora but not Nora ...  was a very tall order, both Dhont and Monsecour have spoken  about how  they struggled and how Polster originally auditioned to be one of the rest of the  class ...

Fourth the body image stuff and the taping... ballet and  being trans is a perfect storm of self criticism of the body, yet dancers who are trans still dance for whatever reason - because it makes us happy, because it challenges us , because it helps with controlling weight and optimising physical condition in the promise of Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS) at point in the future.

Those who have read the blog before will know I admit to taping- usually  however only on the days I take class and not in the way Lara tapes - although I have taped like that to explore if I feel secure enough to not wear knickers under a leotard, but  equally as an adult and as someone who dances for fun i'm not going to be marked down for the fact i have a thong or two or control knickers under my  leotard (unless the leg lines peek out) other trans women I know who dance have various techniques and devices  and various solutions involving shapewear , taping, elastic, bodytights etc etc etc... The simple fact is for many  trans women 'lines' are all important and they will go to all sorts of lengths  to achieve it ...

'Making up arrears' is mentioned to Lara in her private  classes with the Ballet Mistress, this is not  unique to Lara  or  to  trans dancers, I have a  cisgender women  ballet buddy , who started  dancing at 18 , after several years away from being a competitive  gymnast ...  She's good , she has good physical facility and  musicality , she is an appealing dancer to watch ...  a number of teachers have said things to her such as ' if had got my hands on you at 13  rather than 23 ' ...  implying  a rise to prominence  like Misty Copeland  ( even if not as far or as fast ) the added poignantcy in Lara's story   comes with the Ballet Mistresses comments about her feet ' we can't just lop bits of you off '

When Lara locks herself in the toilet at school to  remove  her taping  and  then drink from the tap ... some reivewers / comments suggest this is some kind of  obsessive behaviour, I have a slightly different take on this ...  I know a trans dancer who has / used to have a habit of fluid restricting herself across the day  because she has social anxiety about using 'public' toilets and changing rooms -
and would then attempt to make up the deficit once 'safe' ... 

The friend in question describes it as "not mastering being unapologetically trans" ...  I don't have anxiety about using public toilets beyond the fear of a  confrontation that could happen anywhere,  I do use changing rooms but i have never stripped naked in one without cubicles since coming out ...  and  have been known to lock myself into a toilet cubicle to undertake certain parts of  changing or things like untaping my tuck after class if for instance I have a long drive ahead or some such.

The British have a peculiar attitude towards Nudity  and changing rooms, in no way as prudish as the US Americans are portrayed but it is all rather strange.  I do  think some of the concern trolling from a certain demographic of concerned british journalists and politicians  reflects the toxic masculinity and predatory  power sexuality of the Public School system  ( i.e. the  private  boarding schools  not  State schools  for  any none UK readers)

Fifth Sexual Activity  - consensual or otherwise

Lara's sexuality is unclear in the  story,   however the young male doctor / psychologist  does have a discussion  couched in  heterosexual  normative terms with her  and encourages Lara to experience / experiment  before GCS,  we see this through her  relationship with Lewis, the neighbour, whom she fellates but then  promptly  runs away in disgust as he orgasms.

Then there is the sleep over with the girls where they gang  up on Lara to  get her to  show them her  genitalia and  refer to her in masculine terms ...  there's no consent here, that is  arguably a sexual assault.

Sixth the penultimate sequence - Physical dysphoria is real and  crippling  at time we know Lara  really struggles with it  as seen with the taping etc.  it's not clear  what Lara does do in that  penultimate sequence. There are various theories as to what she does, depending on exactly how rational the decision to  take that action is.  

Seventh the final sequence.

It's clear that Lara is  alive, happy, upright, confident and relieved... it's not clear where she is going but it  also reflects  how close to Nora's story Lara follows in time.  this may of course be a directorial decision to allow the  viewer to make their own decisions , where  showing  the building she enters as she walks up their street would draw a closure of sort... 

While Girl is not a through and through positive story , it must be viewed in it's whole  rather than  solely  on the basis of Lara being trans, although  a recreational dancer myself my circle of friends and co-conspiritors, my #balletfamily, includes significant numbers of  vocationally trained  dancers , some are my teachers, some are friends of friends, others are part of projects and companies I am involved with, I am not professing to be able to speak for them, but it is my understanding based on a distillation of their disclosures  and discussions  we have had that  the body image  stuff  is not  uniquely the  province of the trans dancer, although obviously for a trans woman who has not  (yet) had GCS there are particular issues to address.

It's not a trans Billy Elliott it never set out to be...  and  would it play to a trope if it had finished with Lara in tutu and pointes about to perform her first solo in a company ... or  equally with Lara's rejection of that perfection in favour of contemporary (echoing Nora's  shift in emphasis)  or even  a massive swerve to  Lara  the clinician or  therapist ...


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